“Judgment at Nuremberg” is another of Stanley Kramer’s “message movies” like “Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner?” and “Inherit the Wind”. This time he decided to be one of the first to take on the Nuremberg Trials and the Holocaust. He was inspired by a teleplay that aired on Playhouse 90. He got Abbie Mann to adapt the screenplay for the big screen. He then convinced Spencer Tracy to lead the cast. Tracy loved the script and liked working with Kramer. He made the film in spite of a kidney ailment and ill health due to years of alcoholism. The cachet of Tracy brought several other all-stars to the production. Most agreed to take substantially less of their normal salaries because of the social importance of the movie. The cast included three actors who were problematic: Marlene Dietrich, Judy Garland, and Montgomery Clift. Dietrich was difficult on set and insisted on special lighting and wanted her lines rewritten, which Kramer denied. Garland had not made a movie in seven years and had a reputation for being difficult. She was uncharacteristically fine for this production. However, she had trouble getting into character. Clift binge-drank through his participation, which actually enhanced his performance. The movie was a minor hit (but did not do well in West Germany because most Germans did not want to reopen old wounds). It was critically acclaimed although there were some that questioned Kramer’s directing. It was nominated for eleven Academy Awards and won for Best Actor (Maximilian Schell) and Best Adapted Screenplay (Mann). Kramer received the Irving Thalberg Memorial Award.
Mann based the screenplay on the Judge’s Trial of 1947. This was one of the twelve U.S. military tribunals (known as the Subsequent Nuremberg Trials) that followed the main trials. 16 jurists and lawyers were on trial. Most were members of the Reich Ministry of Justice and the others were prosecutors and judges of the Special Courts or People’s Courts. The main charge was furthering the “racial purity’ program including eugenics. Specifically, the defendants were accused of judicial acts of sterilization and persecution of people for religious, racial, political reasons or for disabilities. This particular trial was held from March 5-December 4, 1947. Ten of the sixteen defendants were found guilty and most were given life sentences (although all got out in a relatively short time). Mann also incorporated the Katzenberger Trial which involved an elderly Jew who attempted to seduce a sixteen year-old Aryan girl in violation of the Nuremberg Laws. He was sentenced to death.
The movie opens with the iconic shot of the blowing up of the swastika at Nuremberg Stadium. The movie takes place in Nuremberg in 1948. The trial is of what seems to be small fry – four Nazi judges. Tracy plays the presiding judge Dan Haywood. He is modest about his abilities and is determined to understand as well as judge. As part of his process, he befriends the widow (Dietrich) of a German general who was executed for his role in the Malmedy Massacre. Haywood is not locked into finding the defendants guilty. The prosecuting attorney is Col. Ted Lawson (Richard Widmark) who, in an emotional opening statement, makes it clear that all Germans are to blame for the depredations of the Nazis. On the other side, defense counsel Hans Rolfe (Schell) argues that the men had no choice because they would have been considered traitors if they had refused to carry out the laws. Clift plays an intellectually-challenged man who was forcibly sterilized. Garland plays a woman who was a sixteen year-old girl who had relations with a Jewish man resulting in his execution. They both have memorable stints on the witness stand. Lawson uses their testimony to nail the four judges who handled cases like these. Lawson himself makes a trip to the witness stand to narrate footage of the liberation of the death camps. The footage includes piles of naked corpses and bulldozers being used to inter them.
The climactic moment in the film is the testimony of Ernst Janning (Burt Lancaster) who had been a famous and respected jurist and scholar before the war. Janning is pleading guilty, but explains that good people went along with the Nazis because they thought the injustices would be temporary. Rolfe uses his closing argument to reference how the Allies shit stank too. He mentions Oliver Wendell Holmes defense of eugenics and Churchill’s early praise for Hitler. And, of course, he can’t go without bringing up Hiroshima. It’s up to Haywood and the other two judges to decide the fate of the accused.
“Judgment at Nuremberg” is a thought-provoking film. It explores several themes. One is whether international law takes precedent over national law. In other words, should the defendants refused to enforce laws they should have known were wrong. Another is how can the Allies condemn actions that were not that much different than injustices they perpetrated. Many American states had eugenics and/or miscegenation laws at the time. The movie only hints at the hypocrisy of that situation. After all, the movie was made during the Cold War and no studio would have financed an indictment of America. In fact, the movie uses the breaking out of the Berlin Blockade to make the case that the trial was influenced by the desire to not offend West Germany too much during the crisis.
The real strength of the movie is the acting. Kramer makes great use of his outstanding cast. This is definitely an actors’ movie. The stunt casting of Dietrich, Garland, and Clift works, especially if you know their backstories. Clift, in particular, is amazing given what he was going through in his personal life. In fact, Kramer used his mental instability to get a great performance out of him. It was a gamble. Clift was drinking so heavily that he could not remember his lines. Kramer allowed him to ad lib most of his testimony. It worked. Tracy glues it all together and gets to give a closing speech that was eleven minutes of one take. But acting honors go to Schell. He won the Best Actor Oscar even though he was fifth billed. His nomination with Tracy was a rare double nomination and even rarer victory for one of them. Speaking of great actors, Werner Klemperer recreated his role of the unrepentant judge from the Playhouse 90 production. Klemperer was a Jew whose father’s family had fled Nazi Germany. He insisted that if he played German roles they had to be negative characters or buffoons. Col. Klink was the latter.
The acting distracts from the length and preachiness of the movie. It is typical Kramer. Kramer was criticized by many for this aspect of his “message movies”. I think this was unjust. He took chances with his topics and those movies were significant. They may seem tedious to some, but he was sincere. He also took some grief for showy cinematography in this film. Most famously for a shot where the camera makes a 360 degree circuit around Widmark during a monologue. Kramer admitted later that it was a bit overblown. I thought it was cool and I liked the frequent use of deep focus. If you are not a critic whose job is to get upset about cinematography stunts, such shots can be interesting.
Will “Judgment at Nuremberg” crack my 100 Best War Movies? I could. It is a must-see. It is a rare war movie that makes you think and examine your conscience. A key part of the script is that the audience wonders what Haywood’s final decision will be. It could go either way.
GRADE = B+